Thursday, July 03, 2014

Congratulations, you closely held corporations! The Kingdom of Heaven is yours, too!

God's domain belongs to the closely-held corporation! And it can treat you the way it wants!

There is some concern, well-placed I'm afraid, that Burwell v Hobby Lobby has erased the distinction between churches and for-profit corporations.  I'm not sure where that leads us legally, but it confirms a trend socially that I've noticed since my first church.

Fresh out of seminary and anxious for a placement, I interviewed with and accepted a call to a church which included a discussion I only later realized was an offer to "hire" me (rather than "call," which implies a wholly different relationship) on a commission basis.  It wasn't subtle or hidden; I just didn't want to pay attention at the time.  A member of the search committee made the offer:  I could draw a small salary, and increase it as I increased the membership of the church.  He made it as an offer in my best interest, an incentive for me to draw more members to the church, to put seats in the pews, to increase the income of the congregation, in short.  He was quite explicit on the point:  as I drew more paying members to the church, I could increase my salary based on the increased church income.  I could draw directly from the income brought by those new members, to feather my nest; he wouldn't mind a bit.

No one else at that interview disagreed with his offer.

To understand how appalling that is, you have to understand that pastors are called to pulpits.  They are called as servants of God, and absent an episcopalian structure (bishops who assign priests/pastors to pulpits), the arrangement is between the pastor and the congregation (this is the norm for congregational polities like Baptists and the UCC, or for presbyterial polities like the Presbyterian church.)  The pastor comes to be a servant to the congregation, but also to be a representative of the larger church (a distinction usually clearer in episcopalian polities, but not necessarily all that clear).  The pastor is not "hired" by the church to do a "job," such as increase membership.  That is a job a club might hire someone for, or any business; but a church is not a business, and is not supposed to act like one.

In my experience, a lot of lay people don't understand that distinction anymore.  The minister is an employee, the job of the minister is to draw the crowds like Joel Osteen does, and the business of the church is to put as many paying butts in the pews as possible, provided only that the newcomers all get along with "us."  Did Burwell add fuel to that fire?  Inadvertently, yes.  Is the Supreme Court influenced by this "business" attitude? Well, one would think not, as the majority of the court is Roman Catholic, and Alito is Catholic.  But then I've seen a clergy cast out of his church to serve the business interests of very wealthy people (I can't say much particular about it) by the authority who is supposed to protect him, and had the same experience myself.  That churches are run like businesses, and that there are certain people you just don't cross, is not a new or unusual insight.

Still, I come from a denomination with the tradition of "Herr Pastor," a pastoral figure who you didn't cross.  I knew one such pastor, in his retirement; and the authority and respect he expected just from his position was a thing of the far past.  On the other hand, I served a church which never kept a pastor for more than 3 years, on average; and I know churches who regularly keep pastors for decades; so every rule is subject to exception.

But there is a growing literature among pastors of "Clergy killer" congregations, and one central point of the strife is the congregation that wants to be like a "mega-church," and mega-churches are businesses first and churches second.  They don't challenge their members, they appeal to them.

Well, that's another topic, and I've done it to death by now.

Are churches merely businesses?  No.  Are they more and more treated as such?  Yes:

As a scholar of religious history, I observe the way that faith intersects with culture. I study and publish on megachurches and my interpretation of this week's events is informed not only by my experiences as an employee at Hobby Lobby but also my knowledge of recent religious trends. My biggest question after hearing the decision was not about the particular opinions or practical repercussions (which are significant and have far-reaching and dangerous consequences). Instead, my first thought was: "What is it about our cultural fabric that enables us to attribute religious rights to a corporate entity?" In the United States we have increasingly associated Christianity with capitalism and the consequences affect both corporations and churches. It's a comfortable relationship and seemingly natural since so much of our history is built on those two forces. But it's also scary.
And why is that scary?

Megachurches advertise on television, billboards, the Internet. They have coffee shops and gift stores. Some feature go-cart tracks, game centers, even oil changes. Many are run by pastors that also serve as CEOs. So when Hobby Lobby seeks similar religious rights as these very corporate churches, we have to reconsider our definition of religious organizations and maybe even say "why not?" We have normalized corporate Christianity to the point that the Supreme Court deems it natural for businesses to hold "sincere" religious beliefs. The religious landscape in the United States, including our familiarity with megachurches and celebrity pastors, certainly contributes to the acceptance of the church/company conundrum.

The "why not" can be answered, however, with the real costs of the decision. Women's reproductive rights are compromised. The religious freedom of employees for these corporations is compromised. The sanctity of our religious institutions is also compromised. To protect religious pluralism and freedom of the individual we need clear demarcations between what is spiritual and what is economical. Otherwise, we sacrifice the soul of American religion and all that makes it good and why I study it on the altar of industry. I can't get those three months at Hobby Lobby back (or the praise muzak out of my head) but I can see more clearly the dangers of allowing corporate Christianity to become the norm. Without clear boundaries, we risk distorting the very idea of religious freedom and the rich, diverse religious culture that makes us who we are.
The slippery slope of unintended consequences, in other words.  And a result which has less to do simply with five men on the Supreme Court, and perhaps a bit more to do with the zeitgeist.

I'm forced at this point to ask what sound like silly questions, but are actually perfectly legitimate; such as this one:

How can a corporation be "Christian"?

Is it "Christian" because it objects to certain forms of birth control?  Or is it Christian because it sells all it owns and gives that money to the poor, and becomes a disciple of Christ?  Is it Christian because it has moral objections to government policy?  Or is it Christian because it only owns one coat, having given the second coat to someone with no coat at all?  Or because it visited the imprisoned, gave food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, prayed without ceasing?

These are not frivolous questions.  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  And Christianity is all about responsibility.  It is about making the first last and the last first.  It is about seeing the arrogant put to rout and exalting the lowly; it is about inviting everyone into the basiliea tou theou.  It is about proclaiming release to the captive and restoring sight to the blind.    It is about responsibility towards others, which is to say responsibility (in the Christian sense, at least; which is all the Court really addressed in Burwell) towards God.  And that responsibility requires you to humble yourself to others, not to put yourself above them; because God is not on that throne with the ruler; God is in the street with the ptochoi.

Being Christian is not about making a return on investment, or a profit on what the people need (regard, as a simple object lesson, the cleansing of the Temple), or providing a dividend for shareholders.  Mind, none of the things business requires are necessarily antithetical to Christianity, but to conflate Christianity with business, to say a business can be Christian, is to drain the concept of Christianity of all meaning.

A business can be run by Christians, who try to the best of their understanding to live out their Christianity as business owners; but the business itself is not "Christian."  It is not the 'body of Christ,' it is not a charity, it is not guided by the principles of Matthew 25, and does not expect to be judged a sheep or a goat.

Who, after all, gets to decide what businesses are "Christian," what religious beliefs are "sincerely held"?  The Court expressly refused in Burwell to enter into the guessing game that even God won't enter into.

Will this Supreme Court ruling move churches closer to being businesses?  Not directly, I don't think.  I don't foresee a suit getting to any court challenging a church on the grounds it should be a business; although there may be some interesting challenges as to why churches enjoy tax exempt status and for-profit businesses don't, with much jumping through hoops to make some very legalistic distinctions.  A lot of the analysis in Burwell argues there is no difference between a for-profit corporation and a non-profit one; but that latter status is the primary legal basis for tax-exempt status for churches and charities.  If the logic of Burwell starts to erode that distinction, the case could have some very strange and sad consequences, indeed.


  1. [Megachuches] have coffee shops and gift stores. Some feature go-cart tracks, game centers, even oil changes.

    I realize in the Christian tradition, when a church gets too corporate, it kind of conflicts with, as you allude, the whole thing about Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers. But to what degree does it indeed make sense that a religious/spiritual institution should also be a social, cultural and even recreational institution?

    For instance, I happen to belong to a "Jewish Center" (not to be confused with a Jewish Community Center): the Jewish center to which I belong to is a Conservative/Masorti synagogue, but the original one is Orthodox -- from their website: "Rabbi Kaplan conceived the idea of a Jewish Center that "would bring Jews together...for social, cultural and recreational purposes in addition to worship."

    Is this vision that much different than the idea of a Megachurch? If not, then is the Megachurch unique to Christianity or all that new?

  2. There were churches like that in my childhood: the building of "Family Life Centers" was all the rage 40+ years ago. While the description of the mega-church seems similar, I think there are theological/ideological differences beneath the physical similarities (which, however, blur those distinctions. Mega-churches are the old "Family Life Center" on steroids.)

    For example, Lakeway Church here in Houston now occupies an old basketball arena, the better to accommodate the crowds which still fill the place (AFAIK). The idea of a "sacred space" is obliterated in favor of customer convenience. Robert Shuller, after all, started in an abandoned drive-in theater. What happens is the distinction between sacred space and commercial space is obliterated, and in a time when economists speak of "faith" (literally) in the "free market," that obliteration has interesting consequences.

    In short, it isn't any one item per se (a basketball arena, a Family Life Center); it's the accumulation. I know a UCC church in St. Louis, from the days when St. Louis was a major American city (it's now a shadow of its past). They have, still, the china made just for them, with the church name on it in gold leaf. Sterling silver, too; for the church alone. It was a fine and fancy place, once upon a time; very Constantinian.

    And it very much blurred the line between God and Mammon. That, perhaps, is the issue: when are we identifying the Creator of the Universe too much with our own creation?

    Seems to me the Hebrew prophets had much to say on that point.....